As a child of Deaf adults in 1950s Chicago, Paul Raci, 72, grew up acutely aware of the difficulties his parents faced in a world not designed for them. Everything from phone calls for bill collection to a night at the movies saw Raci serving as their conduit to the hearing world.
“Children should not be put in that position,” he said. “Today they’re largely not. But there’s still a ways to go.”
For nearly 40 years Raci has been doing his part. He has spent over half his life as a passionate advocate, an ASL courtroom interpreter, and a screen and stage actor with institutions like Los Angeles’ famed Deaf West Theatre. But it’s Raci’s recent Oscar-nominated role alongside co-stars Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, and Lauren Ridloff in “Sound of Metal” portraying Joe, a deafened alcohol counselor, that has given him a whole new platform to continue his advocacy.
Ava sat down with Raci to discuss Deaf culture, accessibility, and the position he inhabited between the hearing and Deaf worlds as a CODA, or child of Deaf adults.
— — — — — —
AVA: As a child of Deaf adults, you grew up in the Deaf community. When you look back on your childhood and coming of age around that culture system, what memories and feelings does it evoke?
PAUL RACI: Listen, I grew up in the 1950s in Chicago and my earliest memories of my mom and my dad and the Deaf community and the Deaf culture are all about their fight for rights and accessibility back then. My dad felt oppressed by the hearing man. All his friends would express to me sometimes how oppressive their own country was and how they had to speak a foreign language in their own country constantly because nothing was captioned.
I’ve heard you say you felt like a conduit between the Deaf world and the hearing world for your parents.
I remember one night we went to the movies. We walked two blocks to the theater to see ‘Love Me Tender’ with Elvis Presley. I was 8 and I couldn’t believe I was watching this adult thing with my mom. She loved the movies. Of course, I had to crane my neck and turn constantly so that I could face her and interpret the whole movie for her. I’m interpreting this whole intimate story. My mom was enthralled. I was acting out the whole movie for her. That’s actually when I kind of knew that I had some talent for telling a story. It thrilled me to do the scenes for her. When we walked home that night we were so connected.
My dad loved to watch television. He was stone deaf and never heard anything from birth. He loved to watch ‘The Fugitive’ at night but never knew the plot. It was heartbreaking. So I’d make sure every night I could sit next to the television and interpret the whole thing. To me it was horrifically exclusionary. I’d make sure I was home at night so my dad could be included in pop culture.
Our CEO, Thibault Duchemin, is a fellow child of Deaf adults and has spoken extensively about witnessing firsthand how the world was not accessible for his parents. His anger ultimately fueled him to find purpose and be a part of the solution by creating Ava. Do you remember feeling angry growing up?
As a little boy it angered me to see my dad with no chance of moving up. He’d come home, slump-shouldered with the Chicago Tribune under his arm after a long day working menial jobs to support his family. He had no way, no clear path to get ahead in this world. He never had a shot, never had a chance.
How did your anger fuel you to find purpose?
It all angered me considerably and I had to learn how to deal with that. Look, I’m a child of Deaf adults. I’m like [Thibault]. I grew up in this culture and I understand the struggle. That’s why I became an ASL interpreter. I bought my house in Burbank, California not by being an actor. I’ve been a certified legal interpreter in the Los Angeles and Chicago court system for 35 years. That’s how I’ve lived my life and gotten by. But Hollywood never saw me, never cast me, and never gave me a shot. It’s just like my dad. Things are a little different now.
Did you take it upon yourself to try and ensure Sound of Metal would be more accessible to a wider audience?
When our director Darius Marder called me after we made the movie, I said to him, “If you really want to do something for the community, you oughta just open caption your movie.” He stopped and said, “Really?” I told him, “That’s how you honor Deaf culture.” With captioning, people are so worried. You’re ruining the movie! But the truth is, hearing folks usually won’t even notice it. What you will notice is the inclusivity it represents. And, in my opinion, it enhances the movie.
You grew up without texting, emails, captioning, accessibility to interpreters, and other tools that make access for Deaf or hard of hearing people more equitable in today’s world. When you look around and see how things have progressed technologically, does it make you optimistic about the future?
I still have that streak in me that doesn’t trust the hearing man. But I do see, of course, that the world is becoming more inclusive. All it does is open up our culture. More openness allows access to information. Information is education. Education can change lives. It’s not just a service you’re providing to somebody when you make accommodations. This is so needed. With all this information and this access comes the ability to be competitive in the job market. Period.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.